HL Deb 14 May 1996 vol 572 cc448-54

6.39 p.m.

The Parlimentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th March be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to remove unnecessary burdens from business and to remove statutory obstacles to contracting out. It follows and builds on the thrust of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 and seeks to advance two important government priorities: the deregulation initiative and the competing for quality policy.

The provisions in the order make good sense. This is demonstrated by the small response to the consultation exercise. Comment was invited from over 300 individuals and bodies with a particular interest in the order and only considered necessary.

I shall deal first with deregulation, then address the contracting out issues, and end with an explanation of the enabling powers the order contains.

The clear aim of the Government's deregulation initiative is to produce "fewer, better, simpler" regulations. This initiative is at the heart of the Government's policy to create an environment in which businesses can grow and increase their competitiveness. Over-prescriptive by imposing costs and inflexibilities. Small firms in particular stand to benefit from such moves.

Good progress is being made. Businesses in Northern Ireland are seeing benefits—104 regulations affecting business in Northern Ireland have been repealed or amended.

Let me stress that deregulation does not mean the reduction or removal of necessary protections. The Government's priority is always the proper protection of public interest.

The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 introduced 13 specific deregulatory changes which benefit business in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This order adds a further six specific deregulation provisions of benefit to Northern Ireland businesses.

Three articles will introduce further deregulatory change to Northern Ireland. These will remove statutory constraints on measuring a pint of beer; remove restrictions on Sunday sporting activities; and remove constraints on totalisator operators in relation to deductions from stakes. This provision follows a Great Britain order made under the enabling powers of the 1994 Act.

The remaining three provisions are unique to Northern Ireland. Article 3 removes the requirement to license premises used for horticultural processing; Article 5 removes redundant controls on local auctions; and Article 8 removes the requirement for taxi drivers to sit a separate driving test in order to obtain a taxi driver's licence.

The other side of what is to be enforced is how those measures are to be enforced. Businesses complain that they often incur unnecessary costs in order to meet the demands of over-zealous enforcement officers. They also suggest that they should be able to challenge enforcement officers' decisions at an early stage and, when a formal decision has been made, that their rights of appeal should be clarified and the appeal procedure should be speedy and inexpensive.

The Government recognise those concerns. They believe in ensuring that the manner of enforcement is as fair, transparent and consistent as possible. This is stated in Article 9. Article 10 sets out powers to introduce "model" appeal provisions which will provide a clear procedure to help businesses to appeal enforcement decisions.

Let me now turn to the other provisions in this order. These relate to contracting out and are based on the Competing for Quality White Paper, published in 1991, the aim of which was to improve the quality and responsiveness of our public services, while ensuring that the cost of their provision is one which the nation can afford.

The competing for quality programme exposes public services to the influences of competition. There are some areas of public service where the potential to test whether a function can be undertaken more effectively and efficiently may not be realised because of small but significant legal obstacles.

The order seeks to remove obstacles to market testing and contracting out where they may have been identified, thereby widening the opportunity for central departments, district councils and non-departmental public bodies to consider whether services should be opened to competition. An important point to make here is that the provisions in the order do not prescribe competition; they merely allow it. Final decisions will rest with departments, councils and other bodies.

Measures removing statutory obstacles to contracting out are contained in Parts III and IV of the order. They include a number of specific provisions, enabling functions which are presently the responsibility of statutory office holders, departments and non-departmental public bodies to be exercised by duly authorised contractors.

Articles 11 and 12 enable the Registrar of Companies and Official Receiver to delegate functions to their own staff and to contract out functions.

Articles 13 to 15 are technical provisions relating to the important areas of accountability and contract conditions. They make it clear that the accountability of Ministers is not diminished if a service is contracted out; nor will contracting out affect the responsibilities of office holders or departments in relation to services affected by the order. Although work may be delegated, responsibility may not.

Additional measures in the order remove statutory obstacles to the contracting out of the administration of housing benefit.

The order also contains two measures specific to Northern Ireland which remove obstacles to contracting out in the areas of the agricultural census and dog control services provided by district councils.

A further category of obstacle is where restrictions are imposed by statute or other obligation on the disclosure to others of information held by government. Article 16 and Schedule 4 enable such restricted information to be disclosed to contractors where this is necessary to discharge their contractual responsibilities. In making such information available, it is important to note that contractors will be bound by the same obligations, and be subject to the same penalties for unauthorised release, as would public servants in the same circumstances.

Although most of the provisions follow practice in Great Britain, I need to draw your Lordships' attention to two departures from that practice and to a special measure for social security issues.

The first concerns the Sunday betting provisions in the 1994 Act. As the result of an extensive public consultation exercise a decision has been made not to include those provisions in the order.

Secondly, a general order-making power similar to that in the 1994 Act has not been included in this order. Such a power would have enabled Northern Ireland Orders in Council to be amended by subordinate legislation, where the aim is to effect deregulatory change or to remove an obstacle to contracting out. This would have meant that such orders would not be subject to any form of parliamentary scrutiny. That would have created a situation substantially at odds with that in Great Britain where an effective system of parliamentary checks has been put in place.

A special order-making power for social security legislation has been included in the order. This is a necessary exception to the general rule. The inclusion of this power in Article 17 recognises the need, on the grounds of fairness and established practice, to provide for parity of treatment for social security legislation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The powers in Article 17 will enable any changes made in Great Britain by orders made under the 1994 Act to be introduced into Northern Ireland without delay.

I commend this order as a sensible and reasonable provision. It adds to progress already made across the UK. Its approach is entirely consistent with the Government's initiative to help business to become more competitive by reducing unnecessary burdens. The removal of obstacles to contracting out offers possibilities for flexibility in the delivery of public services. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th March be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction and explanation. No advanced society can manage itself outside a regulatory framework. Indeed, it is impossible to contemplate the sophisticated assumptions on which we conduct our everyday lives without the underpinning of regulation". That is a direct citation from the remarks of the then President of the Board of Trade as recently as February 1994. We agree.

The Minister said that the order does not mean the reduction of protection to the public. I wish I were able to share her confidence since £1 billion of public money is now seriously at risk by virtue of deregulation and the removal of controls from the rendering and animal feed industry.

I wonder whether the Minister can reassure me over one or two articles. Article 3 relates to the repeal of licensing provisions relating to horticultural produce. Can the Minister reassure the House that public standards will be maintained?

Article 5 relates to the local control of auctions. Will the public be protected adequately from the scourge of bogus auctions? In Article 10, of course one welcomes a sensible, efficient, inexpensive appeal procedure. Can the Minister give the assurance that there will be no adverse effect on fair employment, in particular, the fair treatment of female employees?

I welcome the local option being introduced into Northern Ireland in respect of betting on Sundays. We did quite well with local option in a different context—drinking on Sundays—in Wales for many, many years, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris is willing to testify.

Deregulation is not the only answer to these problems. There is of course a strong public service ethos, particularly in Northern Ireland. The note of caution that I should like to sound is that contracting out/deregulation may be superficially attractive as an aspect of political dogma, but it sometimes inflicts upon the public service ethos wounds which are not readily cured.

I shall say one last word if I may. On the previous occasion when we discussed Northern Ireland business I asked the Minister about the position of Patrick Kelly. I was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I want to thank the Minister publicly for fulfilling the indication she gave that that was very much in the mind of the Northern Ireland Office. I am glad to say that the Northern Ireland Office—she may not agree with my terminology—was able to overbear the traditional stubbornness of the Home Office in seeing to the moving of Patrick Kelly from Northern Ireland to a prison in the Republic where he will be nearer to his family and relatives. I thank the Minister.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for her introduction of the order. It is a bit of a rag-bag, is it not? It reminds me of the reported remarks of Winston Churchill when faced with a mess on his plate: This pudding has no theme". We seem to have here an assortment which has been put together for largely ideological reasons.

The Minister is right when she says we must try to reduce barriers to businesses' effectiveness, but the Government should be careful when they claim that they are consistently on the side of reducing regulatory barriers. Butterworth's Company Law had 500 pages in 1979; it now has more than 4,000 pages. As the noble Baroness will know better than most Ministers, the number of necessary forms it recommends businesses to look at has grown from 80 to 265. So under governments of all persuasions—notably the Government who have been in power for the past 17 years—the burden of regulation has tended to grow, and so it is of course right to winnow from time to time—to cull, as it were—the burden of regulation as it grows.

The horrors of BSE, which were due, at least in part, to the removal of appropriate regulations, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, should make us look at each point of removal rather carefully, especially where consumer safety is involved. Like him, I should like to press the Minister on the Horticultural Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The order removes the need for licences under that Act. The Minister failed to mention the fact that these licences are currently required only by horticulturists who produce more than a tonne of horticultural product a year—we are talking about fairly large enterprises—and that the licence deals exclusively with the simple and basic matter of hygiene. I wonder whether she is satisfied that this is not a safety barrier unnecessarily removed.

There is then, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, also said, the repeal of the Auctions (Local Control) Act (Northern Ireland) 1957. That Act gives local councils the right to license properties in which auctions are to be held, and allows them to refuse to license properties owned by people with convictions for an offence involving fraud or dishonesty. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how local councils in Northern Ireland will be able to protect themselves against that type of fraudulent provenance of an application once that provision has been repealed.

Then there is, of great interest to all of us who are beer drinkers, the Weights and Measures (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Interestingly, that is an order which was brought in by this Government in the first place. So, it is—if I dare use the words—a U-turn. The Government have changed their mind about the froth on the top of the beer. I happen to agree with them. It should stop short measures. In that sense, it has my full support, but they might want, in all modesty, to own up to the fact that it was their regulation in the first place.

Finally, contracting out is a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland for the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, gave. First, as the Minister knows well, the private sector is not always strong in Northern Ireland. When a service is contracted out, we must be sure that there is proper competition; that there is no fix of the sort that used to disfigure public life in Northern Ireland; and that genuinely competitive options are available in a particular service. At the same time, we should be careful about wantonly destroying the infrastructure of public service that exists in Northern Ireland.

I hope that in the application of their powers to contract out in Northern Ireland the Government will be extremely careful. I do not propose to do anything but sit mute when we come to vote on this order.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for their contributions to the debate. First, perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that as Minister for Agriculture I am well aware of the effect of BSE on Northern Ireland industry. I assure him that the current difficulties in the beef industry are not the result of deregulation policy but of a combination of factors, the majority of which resulted from economic changes. I hope that we can resolve the problem in the near future.

I share the noble Lords' respect for the high standard of public service in Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt about the commitment of civil servants to the governance of the Province. The contracting out orders represent tools for providing high quality, value-for-money services which everyone has a right to expect. If we save money on administration, we can spend it on the services. That must be to the benefit of the people.

Market testing has shown that the Civil Service has a high degree of competency, as it has won many of the bids. It must be satisfying to prove that one is right. Both noble Lords expressed some concern over horticultural deregulation. I suspect that neither noble Lord has such a horticultural establishment. If they did they would be pleased that they need no longer complete annual licensing applications or pay annual fees. They are not measures which should put the health of the industry, which is so important, at risk.

The fact that we are not removing powers from local authorities regarding auctions is well proven by the fact that in 39 years no local authority has considered it necessary to use the powers. The views of the RUC and the Association of Local Authorities were sought and both were content that the Act should be repealed. As Minister not only for agriculture but also for women issues in the Province, I am aware that contracting out may have a detrimental effect on employment opportunities for women. The Government are looking seriously at the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission and will report soon. We are completely committed to ensuring the delivery of services to the public on a non-discriminatory basis and to securing equality of opportunity and equity of treatment for all people of Northern Ireland in accordance with statutory requirements. Indeed, I was recently told by a member of the Church that Northern Ireland was a matriarchal society. Other noble Lords may have differing views but there can be no doubt about the influence of women and their contribution to the economy.

It gives me no problem to say that if one looks seriously at a difficulty and takes a different view one comes forward with a different view. I am pleased to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that we do not have people standing around in bars measuring the froth on beer, which could not be considered productive to the growth of the Northern Ireland economy which we all wish to see.

The order is straightforward. We recognise that there is no point in having unused legislation on the statute book, and as the noble Lord said, that it is better to cull the duplication of legislation. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.